Trigger warning: this story is about abuse.
One day, she got mad at him.
My mother was mad at my stepfather. I don’t know why. Usually it was me everyone was mad at.
I was seven years old, and everyone in the house knew what he did to me, and yet nobody every got mad at him. “Why did you sit on his lap,” my mother would ask, when she questioned me about what he had done to me on a particular day. I didn’t know how to answer that question.
I sat on his lap, or went into the bedroom with him, or did anything he told me to do.
In my world, children didn’t question adults.
He had been doing those things to me since I was two years old. I don’t know when she found out, or how, but she knew, and the only person she’d ever blamed before that day was me.
As I walked by her side into the police station, I saw men who had been to my house. My stepfather was also a policeman, and these were his buddies. They smiled at me, until my mother started crying.
As she sat, talking with the officers, I heard her explain that she had just found out that my stepfather had been doing things to me. I looked at her in wonder as she cried, and held me close on her lap, and began to believe that she was really sad, for me, for the things that he had done to me.
I snuggled against her, as the men in the room looked at me with kind faces, and my mother held me as I could never remember her doing before. I heard her say, “He told her I wouldn’t love her any more if she told me,” and she squeezed me hard against her as if to prove to everyone how much she did love me.
It was not the first time I’d heard my mother tell a lie, but I knew better than to correct her.
He actually had never said that to me.
I understood somehow that she had to say that, or the officers might be mad at her, too, if they knew she had known about it the whole time. After a very long time, my mother and I got up to leave. One of the officers walked us to the front door of the station, knelt down to me and said, “He’s never going to hurt you again.” My mother hugged me too, starting to cry again, and thanked the officer.
When we got into the car, she was no longer crying. She didn’t speak to me at all, just drove to my Aunt and Uncle’s house, where we stayed. She cried again when we got there, telling them the same story, carefully including the part about his having told me she wouldn’t love me if I told her.
I heard that same sentence repeatedly as the weeks passed, as she spoke to the doctor who examined me, the child welfare worker, her friends, and my grandma.
She told people I was very shy, and too scared to speak, so she spoke for me. I liked how gentle she was with me when we were talking to all these people, and for the first time I could remember, I felt safe. There were so many grownups who wanted to help me.
At night, when nobody else was around, she was different. She was mad at me, and I didn’t know why.
One night, when she hadn’t made dinner, I asked her for a sandwich and she dragged me into the kitchen by the arm, angrily spread some peanut butter on some bread and put it on a plate, yelling at me about eating her out of house and home.
Before I could stop them, tears started falling down my face. She yelled at me to stop pouting and eat. I sat still and tried to stop crying. She picked up the sandwich and shoved part of it into my mouth. I gagged, and she slapped me across the face, telling me that I would sit there until I ate every crumb. Thankfully, she left the room and the dog dutifully ate the sandwich so I could go to bed.
The next day, she took me to see my stepfather’s attorney.
She didn’t say why, I knew better than to ask. My stepfather was there. She hugged him, and we all sat down. They sat next to each other, holding hands.
I heard the attorney say, “we can’t have her lie on the stand.” I knew they were talking about me, but nobody was looking at me. He said that what they could do was make sure I didn’t speak at all to the judge. That way, since my stepfather was going to plead not guilty, and my mother was going to say that she didn’t actually ever see anything happen, there was no real evidence.
Then, they all looked at me.
The attorney told me that the judge was going to ask me a lot of questions, and that it was very important that I not answer any of them. “Don’t tell him your name, or how old you are, or what grade you’re in, or your teacher’s name, not anything, no matter what he asks you, you have to be silent. Can you do that?”
The way they were all looking at me, I felt very important, and I wanted them all to be happy with me, so I said, “I can pretend I’m in the library, because you have to be very quiet in the library and not talk.”
My mother smiled at me, like she was proud of me, and the attorney laughed, like I was the most clever girl. My stepfather nodded. They were all happy with me, and I felt safe. My mother and stepfather took me to lunch, and told me if I would be sure not to say anything at all to the judge, they would get me chocolate ice cream and a new Barbie doll. They didn’t have to offer me those things. I would have done what they said. Maybe they felt a little guilty. More likely, they wanted to seal the deal.
A seven year old girl’s silence can be bought so easily.
Our day in court came, and I listened to my stepfather plead not guilty. When I sat on the chair next to the judge, he smiled at and told me he liked my dress. I smiled back. I could tell he was really nice. He asked me my name, and I wanted more than anything to talk to him.
I wanted to tell him everything about me: my name, that I was seven years old, and my favorite color was purple, that my favorite thing to do was sing, that my dog’s name was Lady, and that my stepfather did things to me and made me do things to him.
He was nice, and I wanted him to like me. I was sad that I couldn’t talk to him, because I thought that he was mad at me. The other grown ups, though, my mother, stepfather, the attorney, were all happy with me. I could feel it.
So I said nothing.
After a while, I stopped looking at him because I could see how disappointed he was that I didn’t answer him. My mother stepped over to me, put her arm around me, and said, “I think she’s scared. She’s afraid she’ll be in trouble for all this.” Then there was a lot of talk about how it was probably all just a big misunderstanding, and my stepfather was free to go.
After we left, my mother took me to get the Barbie with the beautiful dress, and just for a moment, I was happy. I had wanted her for a long time. We met my stepfather at a restaurant and she ordered a dish of chocolate ice cream for me. I hadn’t had breakfast or lunch, but I didn’t actually want the ice cream. I had a hard time swallowing it, and most of just melted in the dish.
When we got into the car, my mother told me that we were going back home to live with my stepfather again.
She told me that I had done the right thing, by not telling the judge, because she risked eternal damnation by lying on the stand, because she loved him that much.
She said that we would need to be very nice to him, especially me, because I had hurt him the most.
She said I should have eaten the ice cream because he had paid for it, even though he’d been without a job since the whole thing started.
I held my Barbie, and remained perfectly silent, while inside my mind I heard a tiny voice crying, “I don’t want to go home…I don’t want to go home…I don’t want to go home.”
I kept my word. I stayed silent, for a very long time.
That time is done.
– Songbird Karen (Bend, USA)
P.S. I invite you to read more about my story on my blog Songbirds Fly.